Veterans’ Day reflection on two military cemeteries in France

“To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe only the truth.” — Voltaire

There are 28 military cemeteries in Normandy. Sixteen for British & Commonwealth troops, two American, two Canadian, one Polish, six German and one French. The best known is the American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, featured in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. It is located just yards from Omaha Beach, one of three American landing areas in the D-Day invasion. The fighting here was the day’s fiercest, responsible for almost half of the nearly 6,000 Americans killed and wounded.

Paris 09 097 Today it is difficult to imagine a battle here. The German fortifications have been removed and the craters filled in, replaced with an official memorial and the graves of 9,387 American men and women who died in Europe during the World War II.

To get to the graves you walk on a path along the top of bluffs overlooking the beach. It is a serene view. Dense, green shrubbery runs down the hillside and ends at a wide, sandy shore. Two paved walkways make it easy to go from the beach to the heights. It is a beach you could take your family to and not once think of men at the top and bottom of the bluffs trying to kill each other and stay alive at the same time.

The path ends at the structures and statue formally designated as the memorial. The structure contains things better suited for a text book: Maps swarmed over by large red arrows showing the outlines of the battle at the most impersonal scale. The statue, Spirit of American Youth, is a highly polished bronze giant. It is rendered in a WPA/socialist realist style meant to embody Every Man and therefore reminiscent of no one.

Look out from the statue and you see the cemetery. It  immediately makes all the other construction superfluous. Row upon row upon row upon row of white headstones, crosses and the occasional Star of David, all perfectly aligned – as if still in military formation. Kneel directly in front of one and look down the row and they seem to curve over the horizon. This emphasizes the group over the individual. It is easy to be awed by the number of dead without a trace of the grief which comes from the loss of a person you actually know.

The largest German cemetery in Normandy is a few miles away from Omaha in the town of La Cambe. It gets far fewer visitors than Omaha, which is a major tourist attraction. The cemetery here is a muted, hidden place. It sits close to a highway but is screened from it by a high wall. Near the wall is a stone marker with this inscription:

The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.

Paris 09 127 Entering the cemetery all you see are groups of five small, dark crosses placed far from each other. They bring to mind small groups of people separated by vast distances who are not part of any greater cause or effort. Initially the lack of headstones is disconcerting. Walk a little farther in and you see the markers lie flat on the ground, filling the areas between the crosses. The multiple crosses are a reminder that many graves here contain several bodies. Because of this La Cambe has far fewer graves than Omaha but contains more than twice as many dead.

At the center of the graveyard is a large stone cross atop a circular mound. The mound is a memorial to some 300 unknown soldiers buried beneath it. At the foot of the mound are a number of wreaths, most donated by former foes.

At Omaha there is a memorial with this inscription: “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” This statement was made for the living, not the dead. The US cemetery is designed to console the survivors that those who died here did so for an important and worthwhile reason.

While losers of wars often make similar claims for their dead, in World War II the Nazis’ acts made this impossible. As a result the private group that built and maintain this German cemetery was free to ask a question their foes could not: Why do we still consider war to be just “a continuation of politics by other means?”